The kid sat perfectly still, hands in his lap, eyes straight ahead. He'd probably been told never to talk to strangers. Good, I thought.
Then the flight attendant came by. "Michael, I have to sit down now because we are about to take off," she said the boy. "This nice man will answer any of your questions, okay?"
Did I have a choice? I offered my hand, and Michael shook it twice, straight up and down. "Hi, I'm Jerry," I said. "You must be about seven years old."
"I'll bet you don’t have kids," he responded.
"Why do you think that? Sure I do." I took out my wallet to show him pictures.
"Because I'm six."
"I was way off, huh?"
The captain's voice came over the speakers: "Flight attendants, prepare for takeoff." Michael pulled his seat belt tight and gripped the armrests as the jet engines roared.
I leaned over. "Right about now I usually say a prayer. I ask God to keep the plane safe and to send angels to protect us."
"Amen," he said, then added, "but I'm not afraid of dying… I'm not afraid because my mama's already in heaven."
"Why are you sorry?" he asked, peering out the window as the plane lifted off.
"I'm sorry you don't have your mama here."
My briefcase jostled at my feet, reminding me of all the work I needed to do.
"Look at those boats down there!" Michael said as the plane banked over the Pacific. "Where are they going?"
"Just going sailing, having a good time. And there's probably a fishing boat full of guys like you and me."
"Fishing. For sea bass and tuna and halibut. Maybe some mackerel. Does your dad ever take you fishing?"
"I don't have a dad." He didn’t elaborate.
"Do they have a bathroom here?" Michael asked, squirming a little.
"Sure," I said. "Let me take you there."
I showed him how to work the Occupied sign and what buttons to push on the sink, then he closed the door. When he emerged he wore a wet shirt and a huge smile. "That sink shoots water everywhere!"
Michael got VIP treatment from the crew during snack time. I took out my laptop and tried to work on a talk I had to give, but my mind kept going back to Michael. I couldn't help looking at the crumbled grocery bag on the floor by his seat. He'd told me that everything he owned was in that bag. Poor kid.
While Michael was getting a tour of the cockpit the flight attendant told me that his grandmother would pick him up in Chicago. In the seat pocket a large manila envelope held all the paper work regarding his custody.
He came back exclaiming, "I got wings! I got cards! I got more peanuts. I got paper to draw on. I saw the pilot. And he said I could come back anytime!" But when he settled back he grew quiet. For a while he stared at the manila envelope.
"What are you thinking?" I asked. He didn't answer. He buried his face in his hands and started sobbing. It had been years since I heard a little one cry like that. My kids were grown—still, I don't think they'd ever cried so hard. I rubbed his back and wondered where the flight attendant was. "What's the matter Michael?" I asked.
All I got were muffled words: "I don't know my grandma. Mama didn't want her to come visit and see her sick. What if Grandma doesn't want me? Where will I go?"
"Michael, do you remember the Christmas story?"
"I don't know."
"Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus? Remember how they came to Bethlehem just before Jesus was born? It was late and cold, and they didn't have anywhere to stay—no family, no hotels, not even hospitals where babies could be born. Well, God was watching over them. He found them a place to stay: a stable with animals."
"Wait, wait." Michael tugged on my sleeve. "I know Jesus. I remember now." Then he closed his eyes and began to sing. His voice rang out with a strength that rocked his tiny frame. "Jeeesus loooves me—thiiiis I knooow. For the Biiiible tells meeee soooo…"
Passengers turned or stood up to see the little boy who made the large sound. Michael didn't notice his audience. With his eyes shut tight and voice lifted high, he was in a good place.
"You've got a great voice," I told him when he was done. "I've never heard anyone sing like that."
"Mama said God gave me good pipes just like my grandma's," he said. "My grandma loves to sing. She sings in her church choir."
"Well, I'll bet you can sing there, too. The two of you will be running that choir."
Even before the plane touched down, people stirred in their seats like kids before the final school bell. By the time the seat belt sign went off, passengers were rushing down the aisle. Michael and I stayed seated.
"Are you gonna go with me?" he asked me when the flight attendant returned.
"I wouldn't miss it for the world," I assured him.
Clutching his bag and the manila envelope in one hand, he grabbed my hand with the other. The two of us followed the flight attendant down the jetway.
All the noises of O'Hare seemed to fill the corridor. Michael stopped, slipping his hand from mine. He dropped to his knees. His mouth quivered. His eyes brimmed. "What’s wrong, Michael? I'll carry you if you want."
He opened his mouth and moved his lips, but it was as if his words were stuck in his throat. When I knelt next to him, he grabbed my neck. I felt his warm, wet face as he whispered in my ear, "I want my mama." Over and over, he gasped, "Mama."
I tried to stand, but Michael squeezed my neck even harder. Then I heard the rattle of footsteps on the corridor's mental floor.
"Is that you, baby?" I couldn't see the woman behind me, but I heard the warmth in her voice. "Oh, baby," she cried. "Come here, Grandmas loves you so much. I need a hug, baby. Let go of that nice man." She knelt beside Michael and me.
Michael's grandma stroked his arm. I smelled a hint of orange blossoms. "You've got folks waiting for you, Michael. Do you know that you've got aunts and uncles and cousins?"
She patted his skinny shoulders and started humming. Then she lifted her head and sang. I wondered if the flight attendant had told her what to sing, or maybe she knew just what was right. Her strong, clear voice filled the passageway: "Jesus loves me—this I know…"
Michaels's gasps quieted. Still holding him, I rose, nodded hello to his grandma and watched her pick up the grocery bag. Right before we got to the doorway to the terminal, Michael loosened his grip and reached for his grandma.
As soon as she walked across the threshold with him, cheers erupted. From the size of the crowd I figured family, friends, pastors, elders, deacons, choir members and most of the neighbors had come to meet Michael. A tall man tugged on Michael's ear and pulled off the red sign around his neck. It no longer applied.
As I made my way to the gate for my connecting flight I barely noticed the weight of my over stuffed briefcase and laptop. I started to wonder who would be in the seat next to mine this time.